To most, Marxism might seem an outdated term. But to Bhaskar Sunkara, editor-in-chief of Jacobin magazine, it might just hold the radical solutions needed to tackle the ailments of our age.
The magazine has just released its ninth print issue, and since launching in 2010, has attracted 3,000 subscribers, over 250,000 web hits a month and is a regular feature on US news networks such as MSNBC and CNN. Prominent contributors to the magazine have included Walter Benn Michaels, American literary theorist, and Slavoj Žižek, the cultural philosopher. Impressive, considering that Sunkara is a recent college graduate only in his early twenties.
Distancing themselves from the stuffy, high-brow intellectual rigidity found in the New Left Review, Sunkara suggests that Jacobin offers “a completely different venue from what existed before. It has a vibrancy and accessibility that is extremely rare on the 21st century left”. And with op-eds boasting blunt titles including ‘Burn the Constitution’, the publication has not shied away from controversy. Rather, it relentlessly exerts radical critiques on issues ranging from workers’ unions, labour rights and the failures of American democracy.
Yet, far from advocating the dogmatic orthodoxy often associated with Marxist political thought, Sunkara believes that the magazine offers a platform in which the modern structural compositions of capitalism and liberal democracy can be effectively challenged. Asked about the social purpose of the publication, he says “I established Jacobin to both assert the relevance of and modernize the Marxist class analysis and traditionally socialist ideas about the necessity of working class organization”.
In addition, he believes the popularity of the magazine lies in its engagement with the public; alongside a sleek, minimalist design, its writing “is clear and accessible, and we approach our polemics in a way that is good in faith, but unrelenting in criticism”.
Being an independent publication, much of its reputation has been built from the ground up, through contributing to debates and political activism. In particular, Jacobin’s presence in the Occupy movement in 2011 truly put it at the forefront of the intellectual left- securing its position as a force to be reckoned with.
While Sunkara associates himself politically as a ‘socialist’, he’s aware of the problematic nature in the usage of this term. Associating more towards the philosophy of Ralph Miliband, the British socialist academic and Ed Miliband, father of current Labour leader. Sunkara acknowledges the diversity of leftist thought evident today, suggesting that “socialism has warped into some type of floating signifier for many”. Regardless of the term’s possible misappropriation by both the Right and the Centre, he notes an array of statistics suggesting “people under 30 have positive impression of socialism than capitalism.” While some may be confused by the nature of modern socialist thought, an association with the welfare state probably means “they know it’s better than the brutal form of capitalism our generation has been subjected to”.
But in an America notoriously suspicious of anything remotely Marxist, can a publication like Jacobin truly go beyond a marginal readership? Sunkara argues that “Despite the political defeats of the neoliberal era, there is still an active working class that generally votes left, has been at the vanguard of anti-austerity efforts, and remains poised to potentially re-emerge as a political force.”
At the same time, movements like Occupy are indicative of a wider discontent with the way that both society and governance operates, as well as a desire for real change, beyond presidential campaign slogans.
Sunkara hopes to “maintain momentum and consolidate Jacobin’s position as the leading magazine of the American left”, and this year will be publishing books and continuing public activism.
Yet, while he may remain in New York, he maintains that Jacobin always had an international outlook; “We’re socialists and internationalists, our intention was never to focus domestically”.